Bill Bryden has had a distinguished career as a theatre and film director. He was born and brought up in my own home town of Greenock, down the river from Glasgow. As I developed an interest in theatre during the 1970s and 1980s, one significant prompt was that a fellow Greenockian was one of its leading lights, first the artistic director of the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh and then one of the directors of the glamorous new National Theatre in London.
Over the years, I read a fair amount about Bryden’s career in the media and saw some of his work. However much more rich detail has come from the unexpected source of the website of the British Library. An interview between Bryden and Harriett Devine, recorded in 2009, is designated as part of a series on “The Legacy of the Royal Court” – Bryden worked at the famous London theatre of new writing in the 1960s before going to the Royal Lyceum – but in fact it covers all parts of his life and career over six hours’ conversation.
For me the interview is most illuminating in explaining how Bryden got started in his career as a theatre director, and it certainly sounds like one of those stories which seemed to happen quite often in that post-war period but couldn’t really happen now.
I always knew that Bryden, born in 1942, had discovered his initial interest in theatre through amateur drama, which was still strong in Greenock during my own youth. He started acting at school and performed at the town’s Arts Guild Theatre, which, twenty years later, I regularly visited myself. In one part of the conversation, he specifically identifies the value of early access to a proper well-equipped theatre like the Arts Guild, providing opportunities to develop skills in direction and stage management which served him well later.
After leaving school he actually worked briefly in a non-arts job, with the local council as a public health inspector, but the next important career step came soon afterwards, when he went to a theatre masterclass at the Edinburgh Festival run by the new Royal Shakespeare Company director Peter Hall. Hall invited him to come to Stratford to observe and help (only in a small way – but he was paid at least some living expenses, it seems!) the production of the Shakespeare history plays which became the famous Wars of the Roses. Bryden suggests that his case was strengthened because the maverick left-wing Joan Littlewood was originally scheduled to direct at Stratford at this time and it was felt she would tolerate a Scottish working-class boy to assist her in preference to any Oxbridge graduates.
Bryden, now about 20, returned to Scotland and got a job with Scottish Television, the new company which was part of the emerging commercial television network. He had devised the idea for an arts programme and this seems to have led to him writing and producing arts items which were successfully broadcast in daily news programmes. He also worked with the veteran documentary film-maker John Grierson (the man who is credited with inventing the term “documentary” and who had worked on the great film Night Mail ) on his series This Wonderful World.
Although primarily interested in the theatre, Bryden had not actually staged a play since his youthful amateur days. Now, helped by Scottish TV, he applied for one of the director apprenticeships which the TV companies were funding at that time. He was accepted by the Belgrade Theatre Coventry for a year and then moved to the Royal Court Theatre in London. A few years further on, he travelled back to Scotland to the Royal Lyceum Theatre, which is when I first read about him.
The Bryden productions I have seen in the theatre come from different stages of his career. First was his own play Civilians set in Greenock during World War Two for the forgotten Scottish Theatre Company. Then his brilliant National Theatre production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream which came to Glasgow in 1983: it included many of his illustrious company of that period like Jack Shepherd, James Grant and Karl Johnson, plus Paul Scofield as Oberon and Susan Fleetwood as Titania. In 1990, as part of Glasgow’s European Capital of Culture programme, he staged his own play The Ship in what he once described as “an industrial cathedral”, a former ship-building shed, employing a big ensemble cast as he had done at the National Theatre, and telling another story of the past days of Clydeside shipbuilding. Ten years later he brought to Glasgow a National Theatre production which had a similar maritime background, a Dutch play from the early 20th century called The Good Hope.
Bryden describes himself as “a director who writes a bit”. His first play, Willie Rough, set on Clydeside during World War One was performed in the early 1970s at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, during one of those times, as he puts it, when there was talk about a national Scottish theatre. He suggests the play might be revived by the new National Theatre of Scotland. This hasn’t happened yet. Even more unfortunate, the TV version of the play seems to have been lost or neglected by the BBC. After Willie Rough, Bryden wrote Benny Lynch, about the 1930s Scottish boxer. In the 2009 interview, he says he is currently working on a screenplay because he hopes that it will soon be filmed due to the interest of the actor James McAvoy fresh from the success of Atonement. That also has failed to take place, and, as the internet records, it is not the first false dawn for the play.
Bryden loved the cinema from an early age, especially Westerns. Later, he wrote a film script about the James-Younger outlaw gang called The Long Riders. That this was successfully made and released has usually been attributed to the fact that Stacy Keach (who co-produced and plays Frank James) had worked earlier at the National Theatre with Bryden. The film was directed by Walter Hill and with music by Ry Cooder and gained further media attention at the time through its device of casting three sets of acting brothers to play three sets of historical outlaw brothers. It was one of the last films screened in Greenock’s Gaumont cinema before it closed in 1980: the early showing of such a commercially risky film was unusual for the venue and I often wondered whether either Bryden was directly involved in that decision or that a member of the cinema staff was paying discreet tribute to its successful Greenockian writer.
The six hours of Bryden’s reminiscences are fascinating if occasionally rambling and showed me that his career has been even more extensive than I thought. A long cultural “who’s who” is included. “Bill” Gaskill and “Tony” Richardson and “Lindsay” Anderson and “Anthony” Page at the Royal Court; Trevor Nunn and Laurence Olivier and Richard Eyre; Tennessee Williams (“the poet of the American theatre”) and the iconoclastic Edward Bond; Maggie Smith and Vanessa Redgrave; the composer Leonard Bernstein. However Bryden is always modest about his achievements. Several times he mentions how working at the Royal Court during the 1960s was the epitome of a Swinging London lifestyle, and he praises actors uniformly as co-operative and supportive – “if you are honest, if you are yourself, (the actors) will help you, and the great ones are the easiest to work with”.
None of Bryden’s productions enjoyed the international success of Peter Hall’s staging of Amadeus or Trevor Nunn’s Cats or Phyllida Lloyd’s Mamma Mia or Nicholas Hytner’s The History Boys. However his imaginative and inspiring reworking of medieval Bible stories into The Mysteries at the National Theatre’s Cottesloe studio did earn regular stagings, a TV screening and a Olivier award for best director in 1985.
Bryden described The Mysteries as his Cottesloe company’s “signature” work but he staged other notable large ensemble folk music-driven shows about the lives of ordinary people of the past in Lark Rise and The World Turned Upside Down . He also specialised in staging US texts, including several Eugene O’Neill plays and the world premiere of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, later staged on Broadway and filmed.
One illuminating quote he repeats came from Tony Richardson, mostly a film director rather than a stage director and responsible for famous films like Look Back in Anger, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and Tom Jones. Every director, said Richardson, should understand “the politics of show business and the mechanics of success” – meaning, I presume, the way that an individual director’s artistic vision must often be compromised by what financiers expect or audiences will accept. Bryden wryly adds that this definitely applies to Sam Mendes and Stephen Daldry, two directors from the generation after his who have succeeded both in the commercial theatre and in the cinema, and we might think about one or two high-profile names from today which could be added to such a list.
Overall, as stimulating and informative about British theatre in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s as anything in my halcyon youthful days with the BBC or Channel 4.